Sustainable Cities Require Urban Agriculture

By Marielle Dubbeling

Marielle Dubbeling is the Director of the RUAF Foundation and has over 20 years of experience in urban agriculture in many cities around the world.

Apr 27, 2017 | Resources | 2 comments

Growing urbanization goes hand in hand with growing consumer demand for food

Cities are where we find large concentrations of consumers for the end-product of our food systems and it is the responsibility of cities to ensure that all their inhabitants are food-secure. This is increasingly recognized by cities themselves, as shown by city adherence to food-networks as well as international city agendas on food. Examples include the 138 cities which have signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact in 2015, the 12 Dutch cities and 3 National Ministries which have signed the Dutch City deal Food on the Urban Agenda in January 2017, the cities linked to the C40 food systems network, and those having joined the  ICLEI-RUAF CITYFOOD network. The New Urban Agenda, adopted in Quito in October 2016, will guide implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals for the coming years, and through these, food security and nutrition are now at the centre of urban and territorial sustainability.

Diversification and resilience of urban food supply

The past years have shown the vulnerability of urban food supply systems when these are affected by climate impacts, disrupted rural production or food transport, food price hikes or other factors. The New Urban Agenda emphasises the need to ‘strengthen food system planning’ and recognizes that dependence on distant sources of food and other resources can create sustainability challenges and vulnerabilities to supply disruptions. The agenda includes a commitment to: ‘Support urban agriculture and farming, as well as responsible, local, and sustainable consumption and production, and social interactions, through enabling accessible networks of local markets and commerce as an option to contribute to sustainability and food security’.

Cities like New York are already putting such strategies in place. Like all major cities, New York City only has about a 3-day supply of fresh food for its eight million residents. Diversifying the food distribution system can make the city less vulnerable to disruption while also reducing adverse impacts (such as heavy commercial truck traffic) in neighbourhoods like Hunts Point. Diversification should include new transportation infrastructure including rail and water transport, and an emphasis on various sources of food production, including increasing localized production in urban and peri-urban areas (in short: urban agriculture), and forms of food retail (including farmers markets and cooperatives) that build community-based social networks, competencies, and infrastructures.

Next to market-oriented forms of urban agriculture, growing fresh food for home consumption has been shown to help increase access to nutritious and fresh food for the urban poor. It can provide a more varied diet as well as monetary savings that can be used toward other food and non-food purchases, thus reducing overall inequalities in access.

Investing in green productive infrastructure

Cities are also increasingly impacted by climate change. The inclusion and preservation of green spaces, to help mitigate the so-called Urban Heat Island effect and to buffer for storm water, are being promoted by many cities. Promoting not only green, but also green productive infrastructure (combining food growing with other green land uses) will have multiple sustainability benefits.

 

For example, Rosario, Argentina has a climate change plan looking at how to better integrate urban agriculture, food security and greening into its temperature mitigation and storm water management strategies in order to promote more cost-effective solutions and alternatives to higher-cost building insulation and drainage infrastructure improvements. Rosario’s planning aligns with stormwater management practices being adopted in New York City as well.

New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection has committed to investing in green infrastructure that contains rainwater during and after a storm, then releases it into the sewer system slowly, thereby reducing the risk of flooding and impacts on water infrastructure. Green infrastructure projects include turning vacant paved lots and asphalt rooftops into gardens. New York’s experience, like Rosario’s, suggests that if productive landscapes are integrated into storm water management planning, cities may be able to reduce storm water flow and at the same time support the creation of farms and edible gardens, with their respective social and other benefits, at a lower cost than traditional storm water adaptation measures would require.

Improving resource efficiency

Next to food security and climate change impacts, urban agriculture offers opportunities for improved waste recycling. In South Asia, 60-70% of the irrigated and rain fed croplands exist within 20 kilometres radius from the urban centres (Thebo et al 2014). Currently, urban areas account for 75% of the world’s natural resource consumption, while producing over 50% of the globe’s waste on just 2–3% of the earth’s land surface (UNEP, 2013). If consumption-related food waste, other food waste generated by humans, and current stocks of livestock manure and human waste are returned to urban and peri-urban agriculture, it would replenish an astounding 386 million tons of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) annually − more than twice the world’s current consumption while promoting circular economy, increasing efficiency of resource use through waste recovery and reuse, and contributing to rural economic growth.

Social and economic development

Urban agriculture has shown its potential ability to strengthen social inclusion, local economic development (creating job opportunities for women and youth), and community development (increasing community ownership and responsibility for their environment). From a social integration perspective, urban agriculture can help to build bridges within local communities between people from different age groups, backgrounds and cultures. There are numerous examples of such initiatives across European cities in the UK, Germany and Austria. These countries have created opportunities to work with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants on agricultural sites and

community gardens with the aim of improving quality of life and general wellbeing. Many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) from around the world, both for-profit and non-profit, are pioneering innovative entrepreneurial efforts to address urban food provisioning and security.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture will not be able to feed cities entirely, but has the clear potential to contribute to social, economic and environmental city sustainability and enhance urban resilience. Both city governments as well as other actors can play important roles in enhancing this potential.

What can city and regional governments do?

City and regional governments can:

  • Recognize urban agriculture as an urban land use, protect agricultural land areas from urban expansion and ensure secure access and tenure to small holder producers
  • Integrate urban agriculture into city development plans and sectoral policies and programs (climate change; social and economic development; health and food security amongst others)
  • Technically and financially support urban producers
  • Facilitate marketing opportunities for urban producers
  • Include local procurement criteria in their institutional food purchasing and set criteria for other business
  • Promote waste recycling and use in urban agriculture
  • Innovate financing tools for urban agriculture, such as the use of carbon credits (Quito-Ecuador); public –private partnerships and local food business funds.

What can private sector do?

Private sector stakeholders can:

  • Promote urban agriculture and local farming in response to consumer demand (as done by the HMS shops) or as part of their corporate social and environmental responsibility (as done by Accord Hotels)
  • Include localized sourcing in their procurement strategies
  • Promote development of new urban farming systems as done by companies like Philips and Panasonic
  • Include food growing in building certification schemes (as already done in LEAD and BREEM schemes)
  • Align corporate social responsibility strategies and resources with sustainable and resilient vision urban food systems (by promoting or directly engaging in localised sourcing, own production, food waste reduction and management, prioritising links with small-scale producers, SMEs and social enterprises).

Both public and private engagement is needed to further increase city sustainability and urban agriculture is one strategy to do so.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

2 Comments

  1. Giuliana Scott

    As a government worker, it is so helpful to see these ideas and strategies in print. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  2. John Jefferson

    If we look back at the history of urbanization, we see there was a direct connection between rural, agricultural communities and cities. Even Manhattan had farms that existed at the same time the downtown areas were developing. I see this as a call to reimagine and rediscover our past, which gets really exciting when one considers the impact of technology on our ability to scale urban ag.

    Reply

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